3. Belief in Gods
People across the world, and at different times in history have had different ideas of the concept of a god. In modern times, there are basically three recognised views of God in the western Judao-Christian society:
- Believer: Where the person believes there is a God - and may or may not actually worship that God.
- Agnostic: An Agnostic will essentially claim that is does not matter whether there is a God or not.
- Atheist: A person who believes that there is no God.
These are only broad classifications, and many people embrace ideologies that span more than one of these categories. There are people who nominally believe in a God, but do not place any importance in it. It could also be argued that there are atheists who essentially worship a god of their own creation. By turning the supernatural into the science, the science has filled the role that a god might have done previously in a person's life.
It is worth considering how the difference in belief patterns impacts on the ideology of a person. This is perhaps well illustrated in the origin of the person's moral code. Every person has a form of moral code that determines what they feel is a reasonable thing to do and what is not acceptable. Even if it is to say that everything is admissible, then the code of that person is that there are no restrictions.
Traditionally, nations have feared a god or gods, and the moral code was directed at pleasing that god. In modern times this is still largely the case for the major world religions. Christians and Jews, for example, see the Bible as the word of God. The commandments and directions in the Bible then form the code of conduct for these people. Even if they knowingly or unknowingly deviate from some of the principles, there is an accepted source for a lifestyle code.
Atheists, in principle, do not have an equivalent source of standards. With no higher power to be responsible to, there is no inherent restriction on what people should do. There is no fundamental code, for example, to prevent even things such as murder and cannibalism from being considered “acceptable”. There would be nothing fundamental to say that these things would be a bad thing. With there being no perceived difference between humans and other animals, there would be no reason why people should have any more rights than a cow, sheep or ant.
In practice, however, atheists are inclined to obey a set of humanist principles. In western societies these principles stem from the Christian type principles which have had a widespread influence over the last few centuries. These principles form a type of truce, with the implicit assumption that “you can do anything you want, as long as you don't hurt anyone else”. There are, however, some perceived principles to be observed. These come from issues such as the restrictions imposed by the environment. In this case, their conduct is determined by the word of scientists instead of the word of their God.
Consider the words to the nation of Israel recorded in Deuteronomy:
Deut 11:26.: " Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse: 27. "the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you today; 28. "and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you today, to go after other gods which you have not known. NKJV
Here they are promised to be blessed if they follow the commandments of God, or cursed if they failed to obey them. In comparison, the world is busy reducing carbon dioxide emissions because scientists have said that they will be cursed by climate change if they do not do so. The motivation is very similar to that given in the Bible. This suggests that atheists still worship a form of god. It may not be so in name, but it is in principle.
The worship of science can be very similar in nature to the worship of a God, as can be seen by this comparison:
- Worship God because he is their creator.
- Obey and study God to obtain a blessing rather than curse.
- Seek the truth of their origin.
- Obey and study science to obtain a blessing rather than a curse.
Having established that everyone believes in a god, or a god-substitute, it is worth considering the implications that different people are worshipping different gods. In some cases this represents no logical problem. Some religions, such as Agnosticism, accept the possibility that others can be correct. In contrast many are exclusive. For example, by definition, Atheism is exclusive. Its very identity claims that there is no god. Therefore it is not possible for both Atheism and a religion with a god to be correct. At least one must be false. It is useful to determine whether exclusivity is required, as this simplifies the inter-relationships between the religions. A common view is that different religions and the worship of different gods are just different ways to the same thing. Some people will also say that is a naive pipe-dream. If there exists a religion which is both exclusive and correct, then it shows all of the incompatible ones to be incorrect.
Christianity, as described by both the old and new testaments of the Bible, claims an exclusivity. The book of Acts states this directly,
Acts 4:10.: "let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole. 11. "This is the 'stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.' 12. "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." NKJV
So assuming that the God of the Bible is true, it shows others are false.
The Same God
During the times of the Greek and Roman empires, polytheistic worship was common. Most of the civilisations prior to these also worshipped multiple gods. There were gods for agriculture, fertility and the weather, and many other aspects of life. In addition different nations and tribes would worship different gods. These were often not exclusive, as one nation would believe in the existence of the gods of another nation, but choose instead to worship their own. This is consistent with the above record about Jonah, where the captain wanted each passenger to pray to his own god. The assumption was that any one of a number of gods could have brought on the storm, or have the capability to save the ship.
Since the time of the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church, this concept of polytheism is much less common. Of the ancient nations, Israel was one of the few that believed that there was a single God. Christianity was based on Judaism, and catholicism was based on Christianity, and so inherited the monotheistic component. The importance of this is that now many of the world's religions worship a single, exclusive God. This raises the question of whether they are attempting to worship the same god in different ways, or whether they are worshipping different gods. For example: is the god of the Catholics the same god as that of the Church of England? and of the Baptists? and of the Jews? and of the Moslems?
I will consider this aspect though an Old Testament example:
The Golden Calf
Shortly after leaving their captivity in Egypt, the Israelites came to Mt. Sinai. It was at that time that Moses was to appear before God on the mountain to receive a series of commandments and laws. The beginning of these commandments is recorded in Exodus 20:
Exodus 20:2.: " I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3. " You shall have no other gods before Me. 4. " You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; NKJV
Although it is the so-called “ten commandments” that receive the greatest attention during this episode, the very first commandments and precepts were very much related to God himself. In this passage, God says a few things:
- Who his is
- What he has done. At the time, the delivery from Egypt would have been one of the greatest things in the life of the Israelites, and was visibly granted through a higher power.
- Then there was the commandment to neither have or to worship other gods. God wanted the recognition of being the only God. In particular, there was the commandment to not create any idol, even if it was intended to be an image for the true God.
After receiving the commandments and instructions from God, the Israelites agreed to the terms. They did not consider these terms to be unreasonable, but instead agreed to obey them,
Exodus 24:3.: So Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the judgments. And all the people answered with one voice and said, "All the words which the LORD has said we will do." NKJV
After this event, Moses was instructed to go up into Mt. Sinai to receive further commandments and the tables of stone,
Exodus 24:18.: So Moses went into the midst of the cloud and went up into the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. NKJV
So immediately after the acceptance of the commandments, Moses was drawn away for an extended period of time. The people in the camp were left under the charge of two men, named Aaron and Hur. Over this six-week period, the people started to become nervous, and were worried that Moses had not returned. This is perhaps understandable, as Moses had been such a strong and prominent leader through all of the successes of the escape. In their anxiety, however, they disobeyed the very first of the commandments that they had agreed to.
Exodus 32:1.: Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." NKJV
After losing contact with Moses, the people very quickly chose to make their own gods. In the modern context it is difficult to understand what useful purpose could be achieved through the creation of gods, but in the culture of the people of the time, it must have appeared useful. In any case, they wanted a figure-head of leadership. As leader, Aaron then agreed to their requests, and organised the construction of an idol.
Exodus 32:2.: And Aaron said to them, "Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." 3. "So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. NKJV
It is interesting to then see the perceived role of the calf in the Israelites' worship:
Exodus 32:4.: And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" 5. So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, "Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD." 6. Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. NKJV
The claim was that the calf was the god that brought them out of Egypt. In a way, they felt that they were worshipping the same god, but in a different form. This is confirmed by Aaron proclaiming a feast to Yahweh, the name of the true God in the Bible, as if He were the calf. They thought that they were worshipping the same God, but the true God did not think so. The following passage reveals the response of God to these actions,
Exodus 32:7.: And the LORD said to Moses, "Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. 8. "They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!' " NKJV
God saw that the people had corrupted themselves, and that it was an outright breach of the commandments that they had been given. Perhaps even greater than the breaking of the commandments was that they were worshipping an idol --- another god --- and attributing the actions of the true God to being actions of the idol.
The people thought that they had been doing the right thing in worshipping the god that had released them from Egypt --- So what had gone wrong? They identified their god by what they claimed it had done. They labelled it to be the god that brought them out of Egypt. This god would surely be worth worshipping, but it is just that the God that really did bring them out of Egypt did not consider himself to either be a golden calf, or to be sufficiently represented by one.
In a modern context, one could equivalently worship “the god who created the Bible”. Just as the Israelites worshipped the calf as the god who brought them out of Egypt, this need not be pleasing to the true God.
There were two fundamental problems in worshipping their God as a calf:
- They were disobeying the specific commandments of the very God that they were pretending to worship. One of the very first commandments was that they should not create any image or idol. In modern times, this would be like worshipping the God of the Bible, but disobeying its moral standards, such as condoning homosexuality --- which is something that some so-called Christian churches to.
- The image of the calf was not the image that God had given of himself. In short, he was not a calf, and did not want to be a calf. They were worshipping a god of a different nature and form to the real God. To humans, the true nature and image of God may not be important. As such, they then feel free to create an image and model that is convenient to them. This event, however, shows that the true God does not accept this.
Throughout the old testament, and in places in the new, people are continually warned against worshipping and trusting in idols. There is a constant distinction between the one true God, and the false idols.
Idols taught the wrong thing about God. By creating an idol, they created something which was supposed to represent the true God, but in practice the only thing it added was a visual appearance. This visual appearance was wrong, because God is not made of wood or stone. So in short, the only contribution of an idol was a false one. They were convenient for focusing people's attention and allowing them to visualise a god, but in fact this was a bad thing.